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The search for Durham’s best side of mac and cheese

At a barbecue restaurant, meat is the main event. But no heaping serving of Durham barbecue — whether pulled, chopped, wet, or dry — can stand alone. It needs sides, be they slaw, beans or something more adventurous. For me, the most important side is mac and cheese, and Durham chefs keep it simple. 

Regardless of the restaurant, the foundation is the same: a classic macaroni elbow—farfalle or ditalini would be sacrilegious—and always well-cooked. Al dente is a foreign concept to a pitmaster. When it comes to cheese, cheddar is a safe bet and powder is a possibility, but there shouldn’t be anything along the lines of an aged parmigiano-reggiano. A few daring chefs will sprinkle in some black pepper, but there’s no place for the likes of lobster or truffle oil, which may be tastefully (or pretentiously) added at a restaurant where plates aren’t separated into quadrants. 

To figure out who does it best, I embarked on a mac and cheese tour of Durham. In two weeks, I visited five barbecue restaurants, reporter’s notebook in hand, and sampled—or, more accurately, indulged in—each version of the treasured side. Here’s what I found.

Backyard BBQ Pit: A Guilty Pleasure

The lunchtime crowd has formed a line to the door at the Backyard BBQ Pit when I arrive. I spend my wait digesting the sprawling chalkboard menu, admiring the graffiti-covered walls, and gawking at the overflowing cafeteria style buffet. 

“What can I getcha, baby doll?” asks my server once I reach the front of the line. The steam rising from the buffet table fogs its plexiglass barrier, so she walks me through the sides in a friendly southern drawl. She tells me that I shouldn’t miss out on the candied yams, which she prepares from scratch every morning. There isn’t enough room in one black styrofoam takeout container for all of her recommendations, so I find myself at the checkout counter with two combo platters and four different sides (candied yams included).

I open the container to find a heaping side of mac and cheese, spilling out of its quadrant and shining with the oily glow of melted cheddar. I reach for my plastic fork, but soon find that this mac and cheese demands a spoon as I can’t afford to have any of the cheesy sauce slip through the tines. 

The star of this dish is the generously apportioned cheddar cheese that envelops the elbows. It mixes with collard greens and sweet potato in the happiest of accidents as the sides begin to blend together, creating new flavor combinations. After polishing off the last spoonful, I notice a small pool of oil where the mac and cheese once rested. Usually this would concern me, but I remind myself that Backyard BBQ’s mac and cheese is not meant to be refined (or healthy); It’s comfort food, and if an ungodly amount of cheddar cheese is required to make it right, so be it.

The Pit: Home Cooked Charm

Once seated at a high-top table with my feet dangling above the floor, my server brings over a complimentary basket brimming with biscuits and hushpuppies and invites me to take all the time I need with the laminated menu. Her friendliness is a welcome counterpoint to the ominous collection of cleavers that adorn the red wall to my right. 

At The Pit, globs of melted, stringy cheese. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

My side of mac and cheese comes congealed in its small white bowl, shaped as if plated with an ice cream scooper. The yellow dome is flecked with black pepper and intermittent globs of melted, stringy cheddar cheese. My mouth doesn’t water, but I pick up my fork and break into the sphere. 

At first, I’m disappointed by the texture—a graininess in the sauce and overcooked noodles—but then the flavor surprises me. This mac and cheese tastes homemade, like your grandma cooked it for the family reunion (and maybe left it on the boiler a few minutes too long). At first, the dominant flavor is white cheddar: mild, creamy, and subtly salty. But then, a pleasant black pepper kick rises from the back of my tongue, interrupted by the occasional hidden cheddar gob, delightfully chewy and sharp. The mixture of cheeses and spices don’t melt together seamlessly, leaving the sauce separated in places, but this gives the dish character. Like a home cooked meal, you can tell it’s made from scratch.

Picnic: Dorm Room Throwback

Less than 30 seconds elapse between the moment I place my order at Picnic and when I’m handed my mac and cheese in a folded brown paper bag with my name on it. At one of Picnic’s outdoor wooden tables, I open the bag to find a packed plastic deli container, yellow elbows pressed against its clear lid. 

Picnic’s mac and cheese seemed to have spent too much time in boiling water. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

My fork pierces the noodles with ease, a sign of too much time spent in boiling water. Indeed, Picnic’s mac and cheese is meant for the lazy patron, it requires little chewing as the noodles break apart with no effort. The cheese sauce is sticky. It lingers after I swallow, coating the roof of my mouth. Its primary flavor is Velveeta, with a slightly sweet and tangy aftertaste from the addition of pimento cheese. 

Eating Picnic’s mac and cheese won’t be a new or surprising flavor experience, but it will transport you back to the microwavable meals of your college years, and it’s that familiarity that keeps my fork returning to the container. 

Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue: An Afterthought

As the waitress takes me to my table at Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue, I walk past the restaurant’s “wall of fame,” crowded with signed pictures from celebrity patrons, including Joe Biden and the former editor in chief of Vogue. Once in the dining room, I can’t help but notice that I am one of the few patrons without gray hair.  For a weekday lunch, the restaurant’s brown leather booths are remarkably full with regulars who don’t bother opening their menus. My waitress tells me that she’s been working here for over 20 years and serving certain customers daily for just as long. 

Unfortunately, while the rest of Bullock’s feels deeply authentic, the mac and cheese does not. The elbows are cooked well, but the bright yellow sauce that coats them is bland and chalky. Its one-note taste resembles cheddar cheese, but its grittiness and plasticky aftertaste suggests a sauce made from powder. That along with the pasty mouth-feel compels me to retire my fork after a few bites. Bullock’s homey atmosphere and warm service made me want to love their mac and cheese, but it didn’t stack up. The restaurant’s barbeque certainly lives up to its reputation, but the mac and cheese tastes like an afterthought. 

The Original Q Shack: All-Around Champion 

The first thing I note when I walk into Q Shack isn’t the dark red walls or the glowing neon signs or the taxidermied bull’s head. I happen to arrive at Q Shack as a fresh tray of baked mac and cheese is placed into the steam table. I watch, mesmerized, as the server breaks into the cheesy shell with a spoon and transfers hefty, steaming scoops of elbows into paper containers. 

The winner. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal

Metal cafeteria tray in hand, I slide in among the lunch crowd on a colorful vinyl chair and carefully consider which part of the mac and cheese I should try first. A crispy bite from the top? A silky forkful from the middle? One of the chewy, cheesy clusters sprinkled throughout? Settling on a surface bite, I dig my fork in and lift it up, watching strings of cheddar stretch and pull. 

The sauce is sticky and tastes sharp and salty with a hint of black pepper. The noodles near the surface have dried ever so slightly so they crunch, while the ones in the middle are soft and tender, but not mushy or broken. No other restaurant achieved this textural variation. Before each bite, my fork wanders above the noodles as I’m momentarily unable to decide how to craft the next one. 

This mac and cheese is so enjoyable, I hardly remember to eat the chopped pork that is intended as the main dish. Once I do, I eat it only sparingly to save room for the rest of the macaroni. 

Photo at top: Q Shack’s side of mac and cheese, with a helping of hush puppies on the left. Photo by Nicole Kagan – The 9th Street Journal 

Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero envisions a Durham for all

Until a few months ago, Durham City Council member Javiera Caballero had no plans to run for mayor. She was in the middle of serving her four-year term on the council when Mayor Steve Schewel unexpectedly announced he would not be running for reelection. After years of public service, Caballero decided to take her leadership to the next level.  

“It created an opportunity and an open seat that I felt compelled to at least try for,” Caballero said of Schewel’s retirement. She’s motivated to continue the mission she began on the City Council to make Durham more inclusive, accessible, and sustainable. The city is on the cusp of unprecedented progress, she believes, and there’s important work to be done.

Durham’s most pressing challenge is still COVID-19, Caballero said. She and her fellow council members are working hard to vaccinate Durhamites and distribute resources to every neighborhood. 

Beyond the pandemic, Durham faces a web of interlocking issues that Caballero is determined to face head-on, from gun violence to affordable housing to the need for green infrastructure. 

Caballero moved from Chicago to Durham in 2010 with her husband and children. The city has transformed since then, but some of the biggest changes are still to come, including the implementation of a $95 million dollar affordable housing bond and the development of a new community safety department that offers alternatives to policing. 

Caballero worked on both these initiatives as a city council member and is determined to see them through. “It’s so important that the things we’ve passed actually get implemented effectively,” she said. “I want to ensure that the work I have helped to start continues at the kind of expansive level I know it can.”

Caballero’s vision for Durham revolves around community engagement and collaboration. Both are necessary to confront challenges like public safety and affordable housing access, she said. If elected mayor, she promises to prioritize transparency and communication.

“Our systems are designed to be opaque, but we can be intentional about including folks,” Caballero said. “Democracy doesn’t work if people don’t participate.”

Caballero’s ability to connect with all pockets of the Durham community is one of her greatest strengths, said Mayor Pro Tempore Jillian Johnson, who serves on the City Council with Caballero and has endorsed her in the mayoral race. “Javiera is able to reach out into communities that have been underserved and unheard in government for a long time,” Johnson said. “She really cares about everyone who lives here.”

Javiera Caballero became the Durham City Council’s first Latina member when she was appointed to fill a vacancy in Jan. 2018. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk.

Caballero, whose family moved from Chile to the United States when she was young, would be the first Latina mayor ever elected in North Carolina. That representation is important, especially in Durham, where Latinos make up nearly 14% of the population. On the City Council, Caballero has advocated for improved language access programs and legal aid for immigrants. 

Schewel, who endorsed Caballero for mayor last month, praised her deep knowledge of Durham and its people. “There’s no doubt at all that Javiera is deeply rooted in our community and knows the community inside and out,” he said. “She wants to make the city we love a city for all, and I think she knows exactly how to do that.”

Caballero has also been endorsed by the People’s Alliance, an influential Durham political action committee. Caballero is “policy centric and detail oriented,” the endorsement reads. Community organization Durham for All and the Durham Association of Educators have both endorsed Caballero as well. 

Both Schewel and Johnson describe Caballero as extremely hardworking and productive. She wants to get things done for Durham, they said, and that will remain true whether she’s elected mayor or not. 

If Caballero doesn’t win, she’ll continue to serve her current term on the City Council, which ends in 2023. She’s deeply invested in continuing the work she’s started, she said, and refuses to slow down. 

“Regardless of the outcome, there’s a lot to do,” Caballero said. “In either seat, I will keep on doing the work.”

***

For more information on when and how to vote in the 2021 Durham city elections, check out our article on important dates and voting rules

The 9th Street Journal will continue to cover the city elections. Check in with us for more candidates profiles, campaign coverage and other important updates. You can submit questions and news tips to our staff by emailing jacob.sheridan@duke.edu or julianna.rennie@duke.edu.

At the top: Mayoral candidate Javiera Caballero poses in her campaign t-shirt. 9th Street Journal photo by Josie Vonk. 

Durham restaurateurs struggle amid national staffing shortage

Where chalkboard easels listing daily specials and happy hour cocktails once sat outside local restaurants, their owners now post bold-faced “HELP WANTED” signs.

Durham restaurateurs say they were lucky to survive the worst of the pandemic. But just as they were growing hopeful about reopening, they were hit with an unexpected obstacle: finding cooks, cashiers, dishwashers, bartenders, waitpersons and other workers.

“People are leaving the industry in droves now,” said Wyatt Dickson, owner of barbecue restaurant Picnic. “Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced. That’s the new normal.”

In May, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 1.2 million job openings in the restaurant industry, the highest monthly figure since 2000. There aren’t enough people who want to fill those jobs.

“Restaurants will have to change their business models to account for having fewer employees that aren’t as experienced,” Picnic owner Wyatt Dickson said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Picnic, located off Cole Mill Road, needs twice as many employees as it  has right now, Dickson said. With his current low staffing numbers, he can’t open indoor dining or offer full service outdoors. So his customers must order online or at a takeout counter and then bring their own food to outdoor picnic tables. 

Instead of servers and bartenders, this new model requires cashiers, food packers and telephone operators. Unfortunately for these workers, their new roles involve little or no interaction with tipping customers. Picnic’s best servers used to make well more in tips than they would from their hourly wages, Dickson said, so for them working at the restaurant is now far less lucrative. 

To make up for the shortfall in earnings, he implemented a service charge so that when customers pay their checks, the gratuity is already included. 

Customers did not welcome the change. They complained that their meals are more expensive and that their power to decide about tipping has been taken away from them.

“There are people who feel that the restaurants are taking advantage of COVID and adding a service fee. But no, we’re definitely not. We’re just trying to find a way to make it,” Dickson said.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” said Ryan Jones, general manager of GRUB Durham. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

GRUB Durham, a popular Southern brunch spot, is also struggling to make do with fewer employees. GRUB sits on Chapel Hill Street, where patrons fill outdoor tables and a rooftop bar that looks out over the busy road. In the kitchen, it’s even busier. 

“Nobody can get sick or go on vacation now,” joked general manager Ryan Jones. 

GRUB hasn’t been able to accept as many guests as Jones would like because the restaurant simply wouldn’t be able to handle it, he said. In the kitchen, two line cooks are performing the job of four.

“This staff shortage has made it difficult to uphold the standards that we were used to as far as ticket times and quality service,” Jones said. “Is this sustainable long-term? Absolutely not.”

A new kind of waiter

While some restaurants have switched to takeout only and shortened their hours in response to the staffing crisis, others have turned to QR codes.

Patrons at Eastcut and other restaurants use QR codes to read the menu, place their orders and make payment, all on their phones. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The introduction of QR codes in restaurants allows customers to view a menu, place an order, and pay their check all from their phones, reducing the need for waiters and cashiers.  

Brad Bankos and Steve Wuench, co-owners of Eastcut Sandwich Bar, were quick to implement the new technology. 

Eastcut patrons no longer choose from the offerings on a floor-to-ceiling blackboard menu inside, because they no longer are allowed inside the restaurant. Now they sit outside and place their orders by scanning laminated QR codes taped to patio tables. 

“There will never be a line in the restaurant ever again,” Bankos said. “The whole flow and service model will look different to people.”

The way Bankos sees it, the QR code system leverages technology in a way that will both save guests time and give them more control over their experience at the restaurant.

Jones is not convinced. He refuses to use QR codes at GRUB. He doesn’t think that finding ways to eliminate the need for employees is the right solution to the staffing shortage. For him, QR codes fundamentally change the experience of eating out, making it feel impersonal and detached. 

“We don’t want GRUB to be a place that just shuffles food,” Jones said. “We want people to be able to come and see each other and interact with our staff. We want to be a neighborhood hangout.”

Dickson feels the same way and said that QR codes are not part of Picnic’s “ideal customer experience.” But if it comes down to using the technology or closing his restaurant, he’ll opt for the former. 

Still, while QR codes may keep things running smoothly in the front of the house, they can’t contribute in the kitchens where help is needed most.

Scraping the barrel

In the midst of this war for talent, restaurants are forced to fight for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. 

Restaurateurs are offering perks that include flexible hours, health care reimbursement, paid time off, and free sandwiches. This help-wanted sign was posted at Devine’s Restaurant & Sports Bar. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Eastcut is one of those restaurants.

When people navigate to Eastcut’s website, the first thing they now see is a bright yellow pop-up ad urging them to apply for a job. The ad lists perks including a flexible schedule, a health care reimbursement program, paid time off, and, of course, free sandwiches.

“We’re trying to just focus on the things that we can control, because the market for jobs right now is really competitive,” said Bankos. “We have to make sure people see us as a great employer.”

In spite of their efforts, Bankos and Wuench still cannot find the number of staff they need to re-open indoor dining at their sandwich shop. Their current business model relies almost entirely on pickup orders. 

“I don’t think the 2019 Eastcut will ever exist again,” said Bankos. “We’re still serving similar food, but the operation has drastically changed.”

When Bankos and Wuench began asking workers to come back as the pandemic waned, they expected some to decline because of health concerns or a newfound preference for unemployment checks. But they were surprised to find that many of their former employees have decided to leave the restaurant world completely. 

“The restaurant industry has always been a tough one to work in, and I think in their time away many people may have found opportunities in what feel like less stressful environments,” said Bankos. 

Before COVID, Eastcut received 30 to 50 applications a week. Now they get around six at most.

GRUB saw a similar dropoff in applicants. 

When their job postings on Craigslist and Indeed stopped being fruitful, management hired a recruiting company to find ready, willing and able workers.

The recruiters have brought in more applications, but 60% of people who apply don’t come to their interview, Jones said. Of those who are offered the job, 20% don’t show up on their first day. 

At Picnic, Dickson says the most frustrating aspect of the staff shortage is knowing how well his restaurant could be doing, if only he could hire more people.

“It should be boom times. This should be a bonanza,” Dickson said. “There is pent-up demand for what I have to offer, but I’m handicapped in my ability to meet it. And that sucks. It’s like there’s money on the table, and we really need it, and we can’t reach it.”

At the top: Restaurants are fighting for the most qualified applicants by luring them with benefits. This sign was posted at Maverick’s Smokehoouse & Taproom. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Smarty pints: Fullsteam to celebrate its 500th trivia night

The air stirs as the game is about to begin, possibly from the giant ceiling fan or maybe from all the brainwaves filling the bar. The best and brightest of Durham have gathered and are preparing for cerebral combat. The screen flashes to life:  “Fullsteam Brewery presents the 499th edition of Thursday Night Trivia.”  

Very soon teams will be huddled in heated discussion over a vital fact: Which color M&M is said to act as an aphrodisiac?* 

Fullsteam Trivia Night is a quirky Durham tradition that has been puzzling residents for the past 10 years. Every Thursday night, locals, Dukies, and highrise-dwelling millennials gather to show their trivia chops and have a pint of the local brew (try their summer speciality, Above-Ground Pool). Approaching its 500th edition on July 29, Fullsteam’s weekly trivia night has garnered such a loyal following because let’s face it… 

Durham is a city of nerds. 

Add up (and this group likes to do math) Duke, Research Triangle Park, Google, not to mention Apple on the horizon, and the abundance of brainiacs makes Durham a place where it is cool to be smart. We take pride in knowing which Civil War officer is mistakenly credited with inventing baseball or being able to identify various types of beans.

Facts and a good IPA – a perfect night out. 

Fullsteam, a Durham institution since 2010, serves as the location for this meeting of gray matter. It fits with founder and CEO Sean Lilly Wilson’s vision of serving ”as a community center and a mirror of Durham.”

Teams such as the QuaranTinas and Hookers for Jesus sit at orange picnic tables to go head to head in the cavernous (and partially air conditioned) warehouse. Despite the towering brick walls, the houseplants and skylights keep the brewery welcoming and bright. 

Contestants gather at picnic tables inside the bar and submit their answers on paper or through their phones. Photo by Becca Schneid – The 9th Street Journal.

Odd team names are an essential part of the experience. Some, like Arturo’s Batgoats (named after host Arturo Sanchez), are regulars and even have T-shirts, while others dig deep for their inner comic week after week. Other recent names include Nerd Immunity, Trivia Newton John, Botany is Bitchin, and Tequila Mockingbird. 

The collective brainpower of the crowd is impressive.  Many participants are Duke graduate students, such as the members of Fran’s Spicy Meatballs. The rest are young professionals, and a few long-time Durhamites. The game is so alluring that some Fullsteam employees stay after their shift to play. 

Puzzled

Host Zak Norris rattles off the rules and announces the first category: National Flags Made Out of Food. 

(Snarky categories are part of the fun, such as Canadians, Funky Body Parts, Famous Elves, Words that go with “Duck”, Things that Spin, and The Supermarket as seen by your Dog – Blurry Groceries.) 

As the questions begin to roll out, “It’s like watching a ripple go through the crowd,” said Sanchez. “When you ask the question, it gets quiet. You see heads come together at the table. And it’s almost like a communion.” 

Immediately there is a chorus of hurried whispers and nods of agreement. Sometimes after a momentary freeze, BOOM!, faces light up. At one table, players celebrate their guesses, prematurely sure of their correct answer. At another, hands fly gesturing to argue their side in a fierce debate. 

For the really hard questions an audible “huh?” can be heard in the sea of blank faces. 

Then, the big question of the moment:

What is the most recognized smell in the world? 

Teams whisper their guesses: Gasoline? Chocolate? Fish? Beer???

Players take another desperate sip to find the answer hidden somewhere in the foam. 

Once all 10 questions in a category are asked, teams submit their answers on paper or through their phones. (Occasionally teams will leave messages or doodles for the host as well). 

Quizmasters

The questions change each week, but this trivia night is much like the 498 that have come before. 

It began in 2011 when Norris approached Fullsteam about a weekly event. In 2019, Sanchez joined as an alternating host. During the pandemic, he started virtual trivia “because it gave me that sense of continuity, that sense of normalcy that people were craving so much.” 

Sanchez enjoys being the center of attention and fills his trivia nights with jokes and personal stories. He will never reuse a question, but there are some noticeable themes. Watch out for celebrities he thinks are cute, anything related to queer culture, U.S. politics and “The Golden Girls.” 

Norris on the other hand is a “straightforward, no frills” kind of host, Sanchez said. All answers are submitted on paper and while it takes him some time to tally the answers by hand, Norris likes this break. “I think sometimes a question might spark a memory for somebody and they’ll end up telling their table a story.” Norris enjoys the research to put a game together, but unlike his counterpart, “I actually don’t like getting up in front of people.” He focuses on keeping the game moving and creating a pleasant mind-expanding evening. 

What IS the most recognized smell?

When it’s time to announce the answers, the bar is suddenly quiet. Sonic + the Hedgehogs team member Olivier Boivin (a Duke genetics Ph.D. student) sums up the drama. “It’s been a real roller coaster of emotion.” 

Finally Norris gets to the tricky one: “According to a study by Yale University, what is the most recognized smell in the world?” 

“Coffee.”

Cheers erupt and picnic tables rock as a few competitors leap out of their seats for high fives to celebrate a surprise correct answer.

When the game is done, eyes scan the Excel spreadsheet to see how they have fared. 

The winner of the night is Zack’s Zealots. Team member Matt Lawing is a trivia pro who has been playing at various spots in Durham for the past 10 years. He finished the night with a perfect game. 

* Legend says this M&M is an aphrodisiac: Green

In photo above, host Arturo Sanchez. He likes to ask questions about politics, pop culture and “The Golden Girls.” Photo by Becca Schneid, The 9th Street Journal

Field of memories: Even without a home team, the DAP is Durham’s baseball home

On a humid Tuesday evening in July, more than 150 baseball fans sit scattered across the stands of the Historic Durham Athletic Park. Grandparents, families and toddlers have flooded through the old gates to watch the Rockhounds and Thunder go head to head. 

Sweltering in the heat, boys 13 to 15 years old take turns at the plate. Their coaches are  volunteers in the Long Ball Program, part of a Major League Baseball youth outreach initiative. A crack of a bat echoes out into the downtown neighborhood as the Rockhounds make a daring run to first base.

Durham Athletic Park — the DAP — was the home of the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. A block away from Durham Central Park, the ballpark famously served as the backdrop for the 1988 movie Bull Durham, a romantic ode to baseball that helped put this little Southern city on the map. 

The team’s popularity exploded in response to Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon’s saucy depiction of minor league baseball. In 1995, the Bulls moved a few blocks south to their newly constructed Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), where the team still plays today. 

The DAP remained standing but was poorly maintained until its renovation in 2009. Then the old park found new life as the home field for the N.C. Central University Eagles — but that era came to a close this year when NCCU, citing COVID-related budget cuts, eliminated its baseball program.

With the primary tenant gone and the surrounding downtown Durham rapidly developing, many wonder what lies ahead for this old ballpark. 

The DAP remains full of life this summer, hosting several youth league games each week. The Bulls — who manage their old park under contract for its owner, the city of Durham — are optimistic about its future. The ballpark’s next era remains unclear, but city leaders say plans are forming and the DAP is here to stay. 

Cars parked outside El Toro Park, circa 1927. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

The story of Durham Athletic Park is a story of resilience, constant evolution and, above all, a love of baseball.

Worth a run in the bottom of the ninth

For nearly a century, the DAP has stood unmoving as the city of Durham grew and evolved around it. The occupants are always changing, but its concrete walls remain impervious to the ebb and flow of time. 

No matter what, the DAP endures.

It was known as El Toro Park when the Durham Bulls played their first game there in 1926. The stadium was renamed Durham Athletic Park when the city purchased the property in 1933. After a few years of vacancy during the Depression, in 1939, the DAP’s wooden grandstand burned to the ground, with the groundskeeper barely making it out alive. It was quickly rebuilt, this time with steel and concrete. 

The Durham Bulls, circa 1930. Durham Historic Photographic archives, North Carolina Collection, Durham County Library

In 1951 the DAP was the backdrop for Percy Miller Jr.’s debut as the first black baseball player in the Carolina League. The Bulls played off and on there until 1972, when the team folded. 

Then in 1980, owner Miles Wolff revived the Durham Bulls, filling the ballpark with 4,418 fans the first night. In the steaming North Carolina summers of the 1980s, the DAP was the place to be. Retired sportswriter Kip Coons, who covered the Bulls for the Durham Morning Herald (and who appears in Bull Durham), remembers the DAP in its prime. 

“Most nights, it was 4000 [fans], 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons says. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid
“Here on a bad night, it was 3000 [fans]. Most nights, it was 4000, 5000, standing room jammed in. And it was loud,” Coons said. 

He recalls a deafening roar in the small stadium, with fans shouting at the players on the field when they weren’t playing up to snuff. With a narrow foul territory and a field-level press box, the DAP was an intimate ballpark. 

Regularly breaking minor league attendance records, the fans made Bulls games special. Coons said his friend Brian Snitker, now manager of the Atlanta Braves, used to say that, “the crowd in Durham was worth a run in the bottom of the ninth.” 

This culture was partially why Bull Durham director Ron Shelton made Durham the setting for his now-classic film. Shelton, who had played in the minor leagues himself, wanted to capture ordinary baseball in small-town America.

And as Coons watched the movie’s premiere, he knew Shelton had succeeded. The Bulls players were laughing and joking in the theater until the scene where a player was released from the team. 

“It was like a church. It was so quiet.” said Coons. “Because all the players realized, ‘Damn, that could be me tomorrow. I could be out of baseball.’ And when they reacted like that, I realized at that moment, Ron Shelton has nailed it.”

Bull Durham’s authenticity made the film a national hit, grossing $50.8 million and earning recognition as one of the best sports movies of all time. It helped revive minor-league baseball as a nationwide pastime and “shot Durham into national consciousness,” said Susan Amey, president & CEO of Durham’s tourism marketing agency, Discover Durham

Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

Suddenly, everyone wanted to see the Durham Bulls play, and the team began to outgrow the aging DAP. In 1990, a crowd of 6000-plus had the venue bursting at the seams. 

When Jim Goodmon bought the Bulls that same year, plans for a larger ballpark were announced. The team played its first game in the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1995, and three years later, the Bulls became a Triple-A minor league team — the highest before the majors.

The city began to blossom, too. 

“I think Durham’s financial and cultural renaissance directly results from the Bulls’ success as a minor league franchise,” Coons said. 

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was one of the first visitor features downtown, along with Brightleaf Square, the American Tobacco Campus, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, Amey said. The restaurants, hotels, and shops were quick to follow. 

As the team moved on to bigger and better things, the DAP was mostly forgotten. After the Bulls’ departure, the old park was used occasionally for festivals and softball, but the facility was rundown and the field poorly maintained.

In 2009, as a part of a broader move from the city to improve its facilities, the city gave the DAP a $5 million facelift. Renovations were done to improve the structure, surplus seating was removed, and the field was restored to a professional level playing surface.

Minor League Baseball operated the refurbished stadium for a few years as a training area for umpires and groundskeepers. Management, paid for by the city, was passed in 2012 to the Durham Bulls, who remain dedicated to the space.

“We kind of consider ourselves caretakers of the museum, so to speak,” said Scott Strickland, who manages the DAP for the Bulls. “And that’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s a whole lot of fun, too.” 

Old park, new life

NCCU’s baseball program revived the Historic DAP, bringing life and a full schedule to the venue for more than a decade. The Eagles’ daily practices and games occupied most dates September through November and January through May. The team’s final regular season game on home turf was a 6-1 victory over Florida A&M on May 15. 

That would have been a pretty full calendar for a normal field, but due to the few baseball stadiums in the area, the demand for the space was high, so Durham School of the Arts and Voyager Academy also play several games there each year.

In summer, the DAP schedule is packed with youth games.

“I’d say we have activity in the ballpark six days a week,” said Joe Stumpo, the DAP’s head groundskeeper. The ballpark hosts traveling youth teams that play four games a day Thursday through Sunday. The rest of the dates are filled by the Long Ball program, a youth league that provides an alternative to expensive travel teams. 

Families find seats in the stands to watch youth teams play at Durham Athletic Park. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

For youth leagues, the historic nature of the DAP continues to draw in a younger generation. 

“I think that’s why we get so many more people coming,” said Patricia James, founder of the Long Ball Program. “That is our drawing card. When they find out this is our home field.” 

The view from the stands isn’t bad, either. 

“I guess it’s neat for me to see my son play on a field that Hall of Famers have played on,” said Courtney Smith, mother of 14-year-old Bryce. Smith attended Bulls games here as a kid, so “it’s a lot of younger memories that come back” when she visits the park.

Strickland was sad to see NCCU ending its program, but he isn’t worried about filling the new hole in the DAP schedule.

To Strickland their departure just means the next evolution of the DAP. While the venue has always been able to host non-sporting events, from dance recitals to Mayor Bill Bell’s retirement, the building constraints and field protection made them quite expensive and hard to squeeze into the calendar. 

With NCCU off the schedule, “We’ll be able to be a little more selective on the type of events that we do,” he said. Strickland envisions it will look more like a normal baseball field schedule peppered with concerts, movies and other non-sporting events.

City leaders are ready for the DAP’s next evolution as well.

“We want to increase its usage. But we are in the early stages of thinking about that,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. He sees it as a “fantastic public asset” that ought to be used by more of the Durham community. Conversations between the city and Durham Bulls are in their infancy, but Schewel said new information should be available in a few months.

A piece of Durham’s soul

While the Durham Athletic Park has witnessed almost 100 years of a morphing Durham landscape, the last 30 years have been particularly astounding. 

Downtown Durham and the streets around the DAP are crowded with big apartment buildings, new nightlife, and large construction equipment dedicated to building more and more each year. 

Because of the limited land available, the 5.4 acres of land the DAP occupies is valuable real estate. For reference, in 2019, a plot of 0.6 acres across from the farmers market sold for $3.3 million. Several new developments around the ballpark will begin construction soon. 

The DAP is valued at $8.2 million and developers say it would surely fetch more if the city decided to sell it, but Schewel says that’s not an option. “In my 10 years on the council and as mayor, I have never heard a single conversation about selling the property. That is not going to happen,” Schewel said.

Surprisingly, some local developers agree. 

“I would frankly, as a developer, be disappointed to see that go from the neighborhood,” said Ben Perry of East West Partners, the developers in charge of the Liberty Warehouse apartments up the road on Foster Street.

They see it as precious green space, a recreational amenity, and a protected view. 

“Who doesn’t like to look at a baseball field at night. It’s just a beautiful view-shed with activity and life” said Paul Snow, a developer and commercial appraiser who worked on a nearby condo property.

“I think that it is such an important part of that neighborhood that nobody is wishing to see that gone,” Snow said. Perry said a place like the DAP has a different kind of value to the community. “It can’t always be measured in dollars and cents,” he said.

The truth of it is: People just love this old ballpark. 

For Kip Coons, the DAP was where he learned to be a sports writer.  For Joe Stumpo, it was where he had his first full-time job at 19. For Scott Strickland, it was where he watched baseball as a kid with his dad. For Courtney Smith it is where her son plays baseball with his friends.

For others, it is the background in their wedding photo, where they hit their first home run, or maybe just where they walk their dog. 

“I think it’s a connection for generations,” said Stumpo “I just think this place has a lot of history to a lot of people.”

After so many years, Durham Athletic Park has firmly established itself as a part of the city’s identity. 

“I think it carries a little piece of Durham’s soul in it,” said Amey. “It’s something that residents treasure.”

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by,” retired sportswriter Kip Coons said. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Places like the DAP are important to keep not just because of their history. “There are ways to preserve memories. Some of them are museums, and some are natural things like parks, and some are just living memorials like a baseball stadium,” Coons said.

When Coons stands by the old ticket booth, the memories come flooding back — from the DAP’s heyday in the 1980s, and from the movie version, too.

“If I sit here, you know, I expect to see Annie Savoy walk by.” 

At the top: The Bulls are long gone and the NCCU Eagles played their last game in May, but the DAP is busy with youth baseball this summer. Ninth Street Journal photo by Grace Abels

State park rangers fell trees to thwart cliff-jumpers at Eno Quarry

After a series of drownings and broken-bone injuries at an old rock quarry in the Eno River State Park — a beautiful swimming hole enjoyed by Durhamites since the 1970s — state park officials have taken action they hope will prevent future accidents.

This spring, they felled trees to create a barrier at a dangerous jumping spot — a cliff with a 25-foot drop into deep water. 

While they hope to make the four-acre Eno Quarry a safer place to visit, they acknowledge that some visitors are upset about the change.

“I know that it makes people unhappy,” said Kimberly Radewicz, the Eno River State Park superintendent. “But the quarry needs to turn into a purely recreational area, not a hub for daredevils.”

The four-acre Eno Quarry has been a popular swimming hole since the 1970s. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

Four swimmers have died since 1993 at the Eno Quarry, which Radewicz calls a “beautiful nuisance.”  In recent years, her office has received calls about broken backs, broken feet and broken ankles. Three years ago, a 15-year-old girl broke four ribs and suffered a collapsed lung after jumping from the cliff and hitting a tree trunk on her way down. 

The Eno Quarry is surrounded by steep banks in some areas and is uniformly around 65 feet deep. The view from its rocky ledges may give the illusion of a smooth landing, but just under the surface of the dark green water lies a treacherous mix of logs and debris. To enter the water, swimmers must either jump from a 12-to-25-foot rock shelf, climb down a rocky bank, or wade in through the only shallow area — where the bottom is riddled with debris and sharp rocks. 

On her routine patrols, Radewicz warns visitors of the quarry’s hidden dangers. 

Eno River State Park rangers warn quarry visitors of underwater dangers. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

“I tell them the quarry is beautiful, but there’s these other things you need to know for your own protection, for your own security and safety.”

Visitors frequently do not realize how deep the swimming hole actually is, and that there are no lifeguards, Radewicz said. After she shares her insights and statistics, they sometimes reconsider their plans to jump or swim without life vests or rafts.

The Eno Quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. In later years it filled in naturally with water, and visitors soon followed.

The quarry was originally on private property, and locals would trespass to swim, fish, or cliff jump. When people started to get hurt, the property owners at the time, the Coile family, took action.

“They put up barbed wire, they put up barriers, and people would tear them down,” said Radewicz. “It was a very popular place for people to go. I’ve heard stories that they hired a guy with a .22 rifle to try to keep people away.”

Eno Quarry swimmers on a July afternoon. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

For 29-year-old Durham native Todd Fox, the Eno Quarry and its infamous jump have been a reliable weekend destination for more than 13 years. In fact, Fox’s parents met while swimming there, when they were teens. 

After seeing the felled trees on a recent visit, he was devastated.

“They massacred [it],” Fox said. “All that history gone … years of experiences my son will not get the chance to have.”

Quarry visitors walk about a mile from the parking lot, using the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

The Eno Quarry became part of the state park in 2003. The superintendent at the time, Dave Cook, foresaw trouble and tried to ban swimming there altogether. He put up a fence around the jump spot, but outraged swimmers dismantled it, and Cook and his staff eventually revoked their ban. Unable to effectively prohibit swimming, they decided they would simply discourage it. 

To reach the quarry, visitors park at the Cabe Lands Access parking lot off Howe Street and hike about a mile on the Cabe Lands and Quarry trails, navigating under trees and over streams to reach a clearing in the woods. The trail is marked with signs that warn against swimming in the deep water with its submerged hazards, and against jumping or diving from the quarry’s steep banks.

The signs are meant to prevent accidents, but they aren’t a guarantee.

The earliest reported drowning at the Eno Quarry was in 1993. In 2007, 18-year-old Ian Creath drowned while swimming far off shore. Seventeen-year-old Lamont Burt Jr. died in 2015 while swimming just below the jump spot. Nicklaus Brown, 18, drowned after jumping from the cliff and failing to resurface in 2019.

Under former superintendent Keith Nealson, the state park’s response to fatalities focused on increasing quarry patrols and constantly reminding the public of its dangers. Visitors often laughed off his rangers’ warnings, Nealson said.

Nealson and his staff discussed putting up another fence, but they didn’t want to repeat Cook’s mistake. For a while, whenever people called his office for information about the swimming hole, Nealson resorted to saying “we don’t have one.”

Kimberly Radewicz, Eno River State Park superintendent. Credit: NC Division of Parks & Recreation

“When you reach a point where you can’t manage people, you have to find creative solutions,” Nealson said in an interview.

The Eno Quarry makes up just one-tenth of a percent of the state park’s property,  but it is the source of 70% of all emergency calls and citations, he said. 

“The hardest part of managing the entire state park was that quarry,” Nealson said. “On a typical summer weekend, it would be unusual if we didn’t respond to at least five or six incidents there.”

Radewicz knew she needed to do more, especially now that soil erosion is making all entry points increasingly precarious. After she was promoted from park ranger to superintendent in 2019, she channeled her new authority into safeguarding the swimming hole.

When the state park closed in 2020 because of the pandemic, she leveraged the time to brainstorm solutions before reopening. The existing warning signs were not enough; fences can be climbed or destroyed; and a swimming ban is impractical to implement and enforce.

“We would have to have rangers down there 24 hours a day,” Radewicz said. “We don’t have those sorts of resources here.”

Rangers felled trees to block access to a 25-foot cliff. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

She settled on felled trees as the best and most natural option. In February, Radewicz got permission to drop the first round of trees over the jump spot. More trees were felled there in May after teenagers continued to jump, finding gaps in the original barrier. 

So far this year, the Eno River park office has noticed a decrease in emergency calls and injuries.

“It seems to be doing great so far,” Radewicz said. “I have high hopes.”

This is particularly good news given the area’s recent surge in visitors. According to Radewicz, Eno River State Park broke one million visitors for the first time ever last year, ranking it the fourth most popular park among the 41 in the state.

Regulars have noticed how much busier the park is this year. 

“It gets so crowded that it’s impossible to even park there,” said Zachary Keesee, 22, an avid quarry cliff jumper since high school.  “It’s not just locals anymore. People from all over the state come, and nearby college students come in big groups.”

Keesee likes meeting new people and doesn’t mind the increase in visitors, but he’s not sure they’ll continue to come with the jump spot destroyed.

“[The tree barrier] doesn’t only ruin the jump, it ruins the spot where everyone sits and hangs out,” he said.

Park officials briefly tried to ban swimming at the Eno Quarry. Ninth Street Journal photo by Rebecca Schneid

On recent visits to the Eno Quarry, Keesee has seen groups of teenagers immediately turn around and leave after seeing the jump spot barricaded.

While some visitors are unhappy about the new efforts to block cliff-jumping, other quarry visitors say they were never interested in the jump to begin with.

“We didn’t go there for an adrenaline rush,” said Konsta Anttila, who has been a few times with his wife, Elaina. “It was more about having a really relaxing time in a better alternative to a public pool.”

Jump or no jump, many visitors can still be found at the quarry on a summer afternoon — hiking, picnicking, fishing, reading in hammocks, or floating in the water on colorful rafts.

This is Radewicz’s vision for the Eno Quarry.

If safety issues arise again, she said she’ll go back to the drawing board to find new solutions. But for now, she will dedicate her time to improving the trail around the quarry, making it more sustainable. 

Keesee said there are still some smaller banks to jump from, and he wouldn’t be surprised if some committed visitors attempted to “dodge the trees” and make the big jump anyway, but he will err on the side of caution and instead try to find a new spot. He regularly does this by scouring Google Maps for small bodies of water nearby that seem swimmable and then checking them out in person. Sometimes he scores, sometimes not.

Still, he said, he has yet to find a spot that beats the Eno Quarry.

The quarry was excavated in the 1960s to provide stone for the construction of nearby Interstate 85. Ninth Street Journal photo by Nicole Kagan

Even Fox, who was devastated to find his jump ruined, said he will continue to visit the quarry. 

“Even though they messed up my favorite part of the quarry, I will definitely be going back,” Fox said. “It’s still a really nice, peaceful walk through a beautiful part of the woods. Plus, there are waaaay too many memories.”

At top: Felled trees block access to 25-foot cliff at the Eno Quarry. Photo by Nicole Kagan, The 9th Street Journal

For more information about the Eno Quarry, gate times and access points, visit ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/trail/quarry-trail or call (919) 383-1686.

A man, a dog and a scooter

On a Thursday afternoon in Durham, traffic begins to slow on West Main Street as drivers gawk and smile at a cherry red Vespa. Pedestrians turn and pull out their phones to take a photo of the odd spectacle in front of them. They need a picture because otherwise their friends may not believe them. 

This is what they see: A man and a dog riding a scooter. 

The man has Ray-Bans and a thick brown beard. The dog, strapped to the man in a K9 backpack, is a brown and white collie wearing bright red goggles and a colorful tulle collar with sequined stars. 

As they ride, the man stays focused on the road ahead, but the dog, Miss Betty White, seems very aware of the paparazzi. Her tail wags under the nylon pack that secures her to the man’s back. She turns and tilts her head slightly, striking a pose. 

In a year of turmoil and doubt, the sight of a man and a collie on a Vespa evokes a momentary burst of joy. For David Cunningham and his 14-month-old dog, it is just another ride. 

Cunningham, a 43-year-old bartender, grew up in Ohio surrounded by dogs. They were just some of the many beings running around the house with him and his six siblings. Since moving to Durham almost 20 years ago, he had always wanted a dog of his own, but never had the time. That changed when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, West End Billiards, the bar where he works, closed, and Cunningham found himself alone with little to do. He found Miss Betty White in a kennel in Lexington, N.C. 

A registered emotional support dog, Miss Betty, as he calls her, lifted him out of his quarantine blues. Since then, Cunningham’s buddies have told him he’s become a calmer, friendlier guy. 

“She’s the best thing to happen in 2020. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body.” He then adds, “But if she did, she would gnaw on it.”

A peek in her closet

Off the scooter, they spend their evenings together, often dining at outdoor restaurants, or just watching “The Call of the Wild” on Cunningham’s couch. 

Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

Along with her diet kibble, Miss Betty gets a steak dinner once a week and a daily dog-friendly ‘pupcake’ or donut. Every Tuesday night the pair hits a local restaurant for date night. While Cunningham orders off the menu, Miss Betty snacks on a dairy-free peanut butter cup from her favorite dog bakery, Oliver’s Collar. 

“She likes Reese’s just like her dad,” Cunningham says.

She earned her name because of her distinctive fur and as a tribute to the legendary actress: “With her big ole white mane like that, I was like, it’s gotta be Betty White. But there’s only one Betty White, so I insist people call her Miss Betty White.”

True to character, Miss Betty gets dressed up before an outing. A peek into her closet reveals dozens of outfits and accessories, complete with sequins, pom-poms, and ruffles. She has a rainbow tutu, denim overalls, and her “naughty Santa Claus outfit,” named because it is slightly too small and “her booty sticks out,” according to Cunningham.

Though luscious, Miss Betty’s shiny coat comes with a price. It has made vacuuming a crucial part of Cunningham’s daily schedule. That, along with her anti-shedding shampoo, ensures that his couch and cargo pants aren’t completely covered in dog hair.

Cunningham walks Miss Betty at least a half-mile four times a day, they go to the dog park once a week, and on the weekends they take hikes around the Eno, the Duke Forest, or the Al Buehler Trail. Miss Betty also has regular doggy-dates with her best friend Jack-Jack (a “little beagle lookin’ thing”) who lives in the neighborhood.

Miss Betty White’s active lifestyle keeps Cunningham in shape. He says he’s lost weight since he’s gotten her and developed a tan from being outdoors so often.

“Damn I’m beautiful”

She isn’t always as sweet as she looks. When she gets restless, Miss Betty can misbehave. On one such occasion a few months ago, she chewed up the molding around Cunningham’s door. 

He put her in a crate when he left home after that – until his guilt became too strong. Then Cunningham discovered the Furbo, a remotely operated camera that lets you see, talk, and toss treats to your dog when you’re not home. It’s even got an infrared camera so he can see Miss Betty in the dark.

In between customers at the bar, Cunningham will open the app to find Miss Betty White “laying up in the window sill like a cat.” He’ll use the microphone to get her attention, and then shoot a few treats onto the rug for her to find. 

Drivers often swerve to take photos of Miss Betty White. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

She has become something of a local celebrity. During their scooter rides, drivers often swerve to take photos to post. To Cunningham’s surprise, Miss Betty’s fan club stretches beyond Durham. He said she’s been recognized in Hillsborough, without the scooter.

For fans who want to keep in touch with Miss Betty, she has her own Instagram page. 

One post reads: “I love my human!!! Steak and eggs for breakfast…was not expecting that.”

“Bathed, nails trimmed, and brushed…damn I’m beautiful!!!!!” says another.

Cunningham grins.“I’m that guy. I used to make fun of those guys, but now I am one…I show my dog off like she’s my girlfriend or one of my kids.”

One post of Miss Betty as a puppy sitting in the grass is Cunningham’s favorite. He’s thinking he may get it as a tattoo.

Their scooter rides always end the same way. After parking the Vespa, Cunningham removes his helmet, exposing his bald head. Miss Betty gives him a joyous lick.

Every ride ends with a joyous lick. Photo by Becca Schneid | The 9th Street Journal

The Regulator Bookshop to reopen in early June

The Regulator Bookshop, the iconic Ninth Street store that has been shut down for the pandemic, plans to reopen its doors in early June. 

Co-owner Wander Lorentz de Haas told The 9th Street Journal that employees are busy restocking and preparing for customers to return in the next two weeks. 

“I think every staff member is just really excited to reopen and get back to showing people great books,” said Lorentz de Haas.

Like other bookstores, The Regulator closed in March 2020. The store was able to adapt to the pandemic by offering customers curbside pickup or delivery for books ordered online or by phone.

But while many other stores have reopened to the public, The Regulator kept its doors shut. That left many Durham bookworms puzzled. As crowds returned to Ninth Street, it seemed every other shop was open. Why not The Regulator?

“We didn’t feel in a particular rush to do it,” Lorentz de Haas said, “we just want to reopen right.”

Their top priority was to guarantee COVID safety. Elements that made the store unique suddenly posed challenges. “The veteran staff combined with the small intimate store during a pandemic became two huge problems for us” said Lorentz de Haas. 

All staff are now vaccinated and the building has improved air filtration. 

Shutting the store was also a wise business decision.

Their “survival strategy” was to return much of their inventory back to publishers for credit. Keeping a full inventory would be pricey, especially if only a limited number of shoppers would be permitted in the store. So they lowered their inventory, shut their doors, and focused on getting online orders to customers. 

“We basically converted the store into a warehouse.”  

As a result, the inside of the store had been transformed. Now, they are restocking and returning the store to its familiar layout. While they have not settled on a specific date, they expect to open in the first two weeks of June. 

In a time where independent bookstores are threatened by corporate giants such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble, owners of The Regulator were pleasantly surprised at the quantity of orders they have received, especially last summer and over the holidays. 

“The support has been tremendous,” said Lorentz de Haas. “I did not expect that we would be doing as well as we did through the first of the year and even since then.” 

Ready to leave memories of COVID times in the past, they are glad to get back to what they are good at: selling books in-person. 

Bookstores are for browsing. 

“Any of the books we have in the store you can find online – no question about it, but many of them, some of the ones that become our bestsellers, you really have to do some digging to find them,” said Lorentz de Haas. 

But while The Regulator will remain the small, quirky place it has always been, it reopens to a transformed Ninth Street, with a not-very-quirky Chase Bank branch on the opposite side of the street – “Now we have the Rockefellers across from us.”

Despite the increased commercialization of the area, Lorentz de Haas said they see the store as the anchor of Ninth Street. “We just signed a big lease extension, so we’re here to stay.”

Durham’s incarcerated find spiritual support during COVID

Pastor Tim Coles appears on a Zoom screen with a golden cross hanging around his neck. Apple AirPods dangle from his ears as he navigates technology with agility, never imagining he’d be preaching from a virtual pulpit   with a church rooted in a 155-year-old history. 

Coles chairs the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. A sacred home of community, hope and spiritual wholeness, White Rock’s outreach ministries have provided emergency assistance for underserved children and families, fed people experiencing homelessness and empowered the medically disadvantaged through health and wellness workshops. 

But 66% of these programs were suspended due to the pandemic, according to church clerk Sue Jaromn. However, Coles’ ministry continues to reach some of the most disenfranchised members of the Durham community: the incarcerated. 

Of the eight total outreach projects at White Rock, the directors of seven ministries made the painful decision to put them on hold due to the nature of the in-person work. The school ministry couldn’t walk over to Pearson Elementary because of virtual learning. White Rock’s financial assistance program couldn’t provide grants because fiscal giving had decreased. The health ministry remained partially active, assisting with two COVID testing sites. And the missionary circle wrote cards to Meals on Wheels recipients

Despite the challenges of reaching people in jail during a pandemic, the Agape Incarceration Ministry has been the churchs’ most consistent, impactful outreach program during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In the past, the ministry conducted in-person meetings at the Durham County Detention Facility. Now it relies on limited virtual sessions and communicating via handwritten letters from incarcerated people looking for spiritual guidance and emotional support. 

White Rock Baptist Church boasts a 155-year history in Durham. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Virtual constraints

The Durham County Sheriff’s website states that the detention facility “offers internet, in-person and video visitation at no cost to detainees or visitors.”

However, in March 2020, people incarcerated in Durham County were paying GTL VisitMe, a private service contracted by the facility, $2.50 for every 10 minutes outside their two free, 10-minute weekly Zoom visits. When balancing funds for court and bail bond services, this adds up to a steep increase in fees. 

It also makes external communication less accessible, which limits receiving steady emotional support from loved ones. Someone could speak to their partner on a Monday and their parent on Wednesday for a total of 20 minutes of social interaction the entire week. 

Agape Incarceration Ministry’s two-minute to one-hour prayer or chat session in person became a pipe dream. 

“The morale here [at the jail] is low,” said Coles. 

If he’s lucky, Coles hops on Zoom with someone at the county jail for about 10 minutes. Before COVID, he could counsel at least 15 people a week. 

But for the entire month of January 2021, Coles virtually met with that same number of incarcerated people. Most of his interactions come through the mail; he says he receives around 25 handwritten letters per week.

Pastor Tim Coles stands outside of White Rock Baptist Church on Fayetteville St. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

A much-needed outlet

Up until March 2020, volunteers from White Rock and other churches gathered outside of Durham County Detention Facility early Saturday mornings. 

Many of you are natural encouragers, and these brothers and sisters are in low places in their lives and need you,” says the White Rock website

Typically, the volunteers would obtain pre-approval by the county to enter the jail. They’d go through security and wait in a room where incarcerated people could choose to walk over to them for a visit. Depending on the number of volunteers, each person would receive anywhere from two minutes to one hour of prayer, counsel or simple conversation. 

“They need that outlet,” Coles said. 

Whether it’s an approaching court case or family turmoil while away from home, incarcerated people face problems that dramatically shape their existence. Coles says that “they are hungry for peace, community and fulfillment.”

Coles often speaks of an 18-year-old man he regularly encountered on Saturday mornings at the jail. 

“No one ever tapped into his potential,” he explained. 

Coles says he was doing “impossible word searches” for college-level courses and knocking them out. So Coles brought him more difficult puzzles every other Saturday to keep his mind sharp.

The man wasn’t able to be reached for comment due to the pandemic and the transient nature of incarceration. But Coles expressed the value of the in-person interaction that the young man had with the church volunteers.

“No one ever asked him to use his brain,” Coles said. 

Coles says the young man was denied the opportunity to flourish, and he did his best to encourage him to keep up the mental exercises, which helped him emotionally, too. 

“It kept him going.”  

Because of the pandemic, this type of personal interaction doesn’t happen anymore. Yet according to a Durham County Deputy Sheriff, incarcerated people in the county jail get one scheduled day of the week for visits, with “15 to 20 minutes at the most.” Coles and other volunteers who are fully vaccinated can drive to Durham’s detention facility and conduct a video visitation over a county-monitored computer.  

Despite the challenges, White Rock Baptist Church continues to serve the incarcerated the best way they know how: by simply being available.

9th Street Journal reporter Adejuwon Ojebuoboh can be reached at adejuwon.ojebuoboh@duke.edu

Top: Pastor Tim Coles leads the Agape Incarceration Ministry at White Rock Baptist Church. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Community vision gives Belmont Park a makeover

For as long as the residents of Watts-Hillandale can remember, Belmont Park has been neglected. 

“I’ve driven by this park many times, and rarely—if ever—have I seen anyone in here,” said Chris Moyer, a member of the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

For years, Durham Parks and Recreation didn’t list Belmont Park in its inventory of parks and facilities. James Umbanhowar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years, says it took him two years to realize that the park existed; even when he did, he seldom used it. 

Sometimes Umbanhowar would joke about building a pump track—a series of dirt mounds for bicycles— in Belmont Park. Participatory budgeting made Umbanhowar’s pipe dream a reality. 

Neighbors Guy Meilleur and Chris and Kaia Moyer discuss park plans on April 6, 2021. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

Durham adopted participatory budgeting in 2019. The democratic process, where community members submit public proposals and vote on them, helps put the control of public funds into the hands of the people

Tom Dawson, a Durham Parks and Recreation landscape architect, says participatory budgeting is dependent on the needs of Durhamites. 

“Instead of us forming a plan, going to City Council and using our professional overlay, the people come directly to us and come up with an idea of like ‘this is what we’d like to see in our parks.’”

Participatory budgeting at work

According to the city’s participatory budgeting website, community members from all three City Council wards can submit ideas for public arts, recreation, health and wellness and other city services. 

Since its launch, over 14,000 residents and students have participated. Approximately 500 ideas were submitted in its first cycle. In early 2019, Umbanhowar did just that and submitted a proposal to allocate funding for a dirt bike pump track in Belmont Park. Umbanhowar’s proposal was one of 11 chosen by Durham residents. The community voted on how to spend $2.4 million total, or $800,000 per ward.

After Belmont Park received funding in late 2019, Dawson at DPR contacted Umbanhowar, and they collected neighbors’ opinions on the park’s reconstruction. Umbanhowar’s job was outreach, so he emailed friends and bike listservs, contacted neighbors and spoke to the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association

Dawson was in charge of planning. As a DPR employee, he began designing the park’s pump track and ran ideas by both Umbanhowar and the community.

At least 25 Watts-Hillandale residents showed up at Belmont Park on April 6, 2021 to vote for the new plan. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

In February 2020, DPR had its first public meeting about the proposal in Belmont Park. Over 40 residents showed up and voiced concerns and excitement while DPR staff grilled hot dogs and kids drew designs on the asphalt with chalk.

“I think the beauty of [participatory budgeting] is we have residents who really care about improving their community, and just to know that there was a lot of energy and support for this project [Belmont Park],” said Andrew Holland, Durham’s participatory budget manager.  

“I think the park’s always been underutilized, but I didn’t really advocate for a change until it came up on the ballot,” said Carrie Blattel, a resident of Watts-Hillandale, who voted for the pump track. 

Holland emphasized Durham’s efforts to meet people “where they’re at”—whether that be online, knocking on doors or even handing out flyers at barbershops

A vision realized

On April 6, 2021, DPR held its final public and in-person meeting at Belmont Park. The park’s contractor had been chosen, and the pump track’s designs were finalized. This meeting was the last stop before the construction team began moving dirt for the pump track, adding plants and building a new fence. 

“I’m impressed with how many people in the community turned out,” said Sean Wojdula, a member of Belmont Park’s construction team, about the gathering of more than 40 people

Durhamites from the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood voted on a play structure to complement the pump track. Some voted in person; others online. The options for the play structure were a dragon, salamander or snake. 

Kids voted, too.

“I’ll tell adults, ‘I’m interested in what you have to say, but I’m more interested in what the kids have to say,’” said Dawson.

Leon and Vincent, ages eight and five, were excited to vote and be able to bike in a park so close to home. After seeing the different options for a play structure, they both voted for the dragon, though they also pitched wrapping a snake around the dragon instead.

By the end of the summer, Dawson and Umbanhowar hope the park will be finished.

A mockup shows plans for Belmont Park’s makeover at the corner of Albany and Sovereign Streets. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama

“[We] want residents to see projects being developed in their communities,” Durham’s participatory budget manager Holland said, adding that he hopes the community will continue to work in tandem with county staff. 

Mountain bike rider and Watts-Hillandale local Steve Mazzarelli agrees with Holland, and says participatory budgeting “gives the neighborhood more of a voice into how their tax money is used.” 

Durham is currently in its second round of participatory budgeting. This time, $1 million in funding will be delegated to COVID-19 restoration efforts. 

“It’s exciting. I wish they were breaking ground tomorrow and cranking this puppy out,” said Moyer from the Watts-Hillandale Neighborhood Association.

While Belmont Park’s makeover isn’t finished yet, Durham’s first round of participatory budgeting in the Watts-Hillandale neighborhood proved a success.

9th Street Journal reporter Eleanor Ross can be reached at eleanor.ross@duke.edu

9th Street Journal photographer Sho Hatakeyama contributed to this report.

Top: Vincent (left) and Leon Koch (right) inspect the park plan layouts in Belmont Park. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama